Why is everything today 'immersive?'

It's becoming increasing common for the term to be used as a catchphrase.

click to enlarge Eileen Earnest in the legitimately immersive "Beertown" - Photo: Dan R. Winters
Photo: Dan R. Winters
Eileen Earnest in the legitimately immersive "Beertown"

During this summer’s Fringe Festival, I attended a theater piece that marketed itself as “immersive.” The performance that followed was anything but — the actors did not so much as make eye contact with the audience, causing the experience to feel insular and inaccessible. It seemed “immersive” was just being used as a catchphrase, something increasingly common in the arts these days.

I believe the recent overuse of the term “immersive” comes from art’s natural desire to redefine itself and break its own boundaries. The word is used as a signal: This performance will be different in some indefinable way. But theaters (dance companies, galleries, etc.) should reconsider their use of the term. It is becoming too vague, signifying too little. 

Immersive is on the rise as a buzzword. Google Trends suggests a spike in its usage starting around 2012, possibly in conjunction with the growth of virtual reality technology. Merriam-Webster doesn’t even recognize the word yet; the closest it will take you is “immersion.” Dictionary.com is more lenient; its definitions offer that immersive art might be absorptive, attention-getting. 

The senses are key to making a performance immersive. At this year’s Fringe Festival, the show Place/Setting by Pones Inc. dance troupe used food as an element in its performance about the culture of American immigrants. Its Main Street venue smelled of curry and pepper, and attendees were invited to share spiced rice dishes as they listened to stories from Cincinnati’s own immigrant population. It was legitimately immersive. 

I spoke with Eileen Earnest, an actress active both in Cincinnati and across the country, who recalled another sense-invoking performance she attended while working in Washington, D.C. In that piece, Sense-able, audience members were blindfolded and assigned a caretaker who led them through a tactile experience that involved, for example, the feel of soft blankets and the smell of coffee beans. “It was such a vulnerable trust, because you couldn’t see so you didn’t know what they were doing,” Earnest recalls. “The idea was to take away the one dominant sense that theater seems to bring — sight. You could still hear, but that was not important. Sensations of touch and taste were all much more heightened. It was an immersive and vulnerable experience.” 

But there are plenty of shows that call themselves immersive yet are fundamentally traditional in presentation. “What I often find is that people mistake immersive and interactive,” Earnest says. 

In my view, an interactive show involves the audience directly and literally. Immersive performances might involve the audience more passively, abstractly, ambiently. 

Earnest performed in Know Theatre’s production of Beertown, during which every member of the audience became a citizen of a fictional town, engaged in a civic forum. A show that immerses the audience at this depth requires a different set of acting chops altogether. “You’re creating another actor on stage, another character,” Earnest says. “Depending on the audience, some people agree to that 100 percent and it goes exactly as you imagined. Other people are not necessarily ready for that and you have to be OK with that.”

Not every theatergoer wants to be blindfolded, pulled on stage or even directly engaged, which is why it is so important to market a performance correctly. Art should surprise, delight and stun, but many attendees feel freer to enjoy the performance when they have a baseline understanding of the level of participation required of them. Even an incredibly strong show can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth if it is not what the visitor was expecting. On the opposite end, reticent theatergoers might be avoiding shows that they may otherwise enjoy because they fear the word “immersive.”

Most art is challenging to put into words. Performances that break the traditional molds can be even more elusive. However, even when art becomes difficult to describe, we should still endeavor to do so — not to spoil our surprises, but to set accurate expectations for (and attract the right) audiences. We need to be thoughtful about what immersive means when it’s used to describe a cultural event.


CONTACT ERICA REID: [email protected]